There's a better way to cut the state budget than Gov. Rendell's proposal to trim nearly 2 percent from most state agencies - slash the legislature's accounts instead.
Leaders of both parties in the House and Senate have stashed up to $200 million of taxpayers' money in secretive slush funds. They also resurrected their cherished habit of doling out millions in discretionary grants for hometown projects in an election year.
In the meantime, budget winter has arrived early.
Due to weak tax collections, the annual state budget completed in July contains cuts to many programs. Even so, Gov. Rendell and the legislature "balanced" this budget only by anticipating an extra $850 million in federal aid.
When Congress acted last week, Pennsylvania received about $600 million. So the state needs to trim $250 million from its current budget of $28 billion.
Rendell would make up the difference by cutting a variety of state departments by nearly 2 percent, trimming another $50 million from state aid to school districts, and adding $70 million from a pending tax on natural-gas drillers. But the gas tax isn't a sure thing, and, despite Rendell's efforts for eight years, the state is still lagging in its financial commitment to K-12 education.
A far more worthy target for budget cuts is the legislature itself. It has operated for years like an outfit with money to spare.
For example, there's the "Bonusgate" scandal, in which leaders of the legislature funneled millions in tax dollars illegally to campaign workers. And then there's the millions in public money that former Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) allegedly spent on a computer operation to enhance his party's electoral success.
If the legislature can afford such illegal extravagances, it can afford to give back. An audit of the leaders' slush funds - elected officials prefer to call them "leadership accounts" - won't be ready until November. But insiders say these funds contain at least $175 million.
Then there are WAMs, discretionary grants known as "walking-around money." For decades, party leaders in Harrisburg have doled out these grants as favors to legislators at election time.
No one can give a straight answer about the total amount of these grants in the current budget. But it's in the range of $60 million to $100 million, depending on your definition of a WAM.
Not all grants are wasteful; many are spent on good causes. They can range from $5,000 for a volunteer fire company, to $2 million to fund this year's and next year's West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, whose benefactor is House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans (D., Phila.).
"There is no entity called WAMs," Evans said. "Obviously, choices have to be made. The voters either trust our judgment or they don't."
Other legislators in both parties, and the governor, say WAMs are back in style again this year.
"These are not competitive grants," said Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester). "Legislative leaders determine which legislators receive funding, and how much."